Being an associate is not easy, particularly in your first
year or two of practice. Law School and the Bar Admission
Course provide you with limited preparation, expectations
are high and the demands are great. While the learning
curve is steep, and some growing pains are inevitable,
the following guidelines should make your experience more
enjoyable and more successful.
1. Work Hard
This surely goes without saying, but hard work is the
cornerstone of any associate’s success. Do not
think you are doing anything particularly novel if you
work evenings and weekends. While the quality of your
work is surely more important than the quantity (see
number 3 below), the number of hours worked will never
be overlooked by your employer.
2. Take Initiative
Sitting back, doing only what is asked of you and
generally “flying under the radar” may help
you manage your time, but it is not going to advance
your career. You need to take some initiative to get
the experience you’ll need to be successful in
future years. For example, in a litigation practice,
you may research the law for a motion, prepare an Affidavit
of Documents before a discovery, or draft a pre-trial
or mediation memorandum. You will doubtless be familiar
with the file, but this knowledge is somewhat wasted
if you do not also attend on the motion, discovery,
mediation or pre-trial. While your supervising lawyer
should try to get you involved in these events, he or
she will not always think of it, and it is up to you
to ask. Sometimes it won’t be possible due to
scheduling conflicts, other commitments, etc., but take
every opportunity to assist more experienced counsel
at significant file events. You may be able to do something
substantive, or your role may be strictly as a spectator.
Either way, you will benefit from experiencing the “big
picture,” and you will be better prepared to handle
these events on your own when the time comes.
3. Stress Quality Over Quantity
As a junior lawyer, it will take you longer than a
more experienced colleague to complete any given task.
Accept that fact, recognize that it will mean that you
will be putting in more hours than your more experienced
colleagues (see number 1 above), and ensure that the
work you do is of good quality regardless of how long
it takes. If your supervising lawyer has a choice of
you spending two hours on a task and performing it well,
or spending one hour and having it full of errors and
in need of major revision, which do you think he or
she will prefer?
4. Be Realistic About What You Can Achieve
While initiative is good, it is also important to be
realistic. You always want to appear eager to help,
and never want to say “no” for fear of appearing
lazy, unmotivated, etc. However, if you are taking on
work that you cannot complete, you are ultimately doing
a disservice to both the firm and yourself.
5. Move Your Cases Forward
This point cannot be overemphasized. It is easy to
keep busy, but there is a big difference between doing
enough to fill your day, and doing constructive work
that helps push cases forward to conclusion. Remember
that clients are looking for results and they want them
quickly. Obviously, depending on the nature of your
practice, it can reasonably take months or even years
to achieve those results, which most clients understand
and accept. What is unacceptable, and often leads to
both sub-par results and unhappy clients, is the delay
that could have been avoided. To ensure that your work
is being completed in a timely manner, create and continuously
update a file (or assignment) list, review it regularly,
and, most importantly, ensure that every time you work
on a file, you do something constructive to move that
file forward. What you want to avoid is the situation
where you review a file and then, for whatever reason,
that file goes back on the shelf without any other action.
If you are unsure about what to do next, ask someone.
If you become distracted by another matter, ensure that
you come back to the file in the immediate future, before
time passes and everything must be reviewed again. Not
only is it beneficial to your firm to have cases moved
forward, unnecessary delay causes nothing but prejudice
to the client, who will eventually become exasperated,
first with the process and then with you.
6. Be a Team Player
Everyone wants to receive credit, especially in a
competitive environment like a legal practice. But you
will do far better in the long run if you are known
as a team player. Don’t look for personal “reward,”
go out of your way to accommodate those you work with,
help your colleagues whenever you can, and always give
others credit for their involvement, however small,
in an assignment of yours. Your good work, humility,
and “team” approach will all be noticed.
On the other hand, your work product may be overshadowed
if you develop a reputation of being interested only
in promoting yourself.
7. Accept The “Joe” Jobs With A Smile
As a junior lawyer, you will inevitably get some assignments
that have made their way to you because no one wants
them and everyone above you has managed to avoid them.
Its not always fair, and sometimes the product of nothing
more than laziness on the part of more senior counsel,
but it is going to happen. Just keep smiling. The lawyer
who assigned you this task probably knows it is a “dog”
(even if he or she won’t admit it) and you will
be appreciated for getting it done. Do these (and your
other assignments) well, and soon your superiors will
find someone else to do these unenviable tasks.
8. Do Not Be Afraid To Ask For Help
Your supervising lawyer should have an “open
door” policy, and you should feel welcome to ask
questions. Its part of the learning process and helps
ensure that you stay “on track.” There are
two caveats. First, you have to be familiar with the
file you are asking about – it is not your superior’s
job to brief you about background matters you could
learn on your own. Second, you must have already made
a reasonable effort to find the answer. You will be
quite embarrassed if the answer to your question is
easily found in the first place you should have looked
(procedural details found in the Rules of Civil Procedure
are a prime example). If you have done both these things,
feel free to ask.
9. Be Nice To Your Staff
Good office staff is a valuable resource. Good staff
makes your practice easier and more successful, while
less worthy staff will have just the opposite effect.
This is particularly true for junior lawyers who will
benefit from the experience of secretaries and law clerks,
some of whom have been in the industry for many years.
Most junior lawyers have never had staff working for
them before, and there can be a tendency to treat staff
as subservient, or otherwise with a lack of respect.
This is a serious mistake! Consider your staff to be
valuable members of your team and treat them accordingly.
You will find that the quality of their work will be
higher, and their motivation to help you during those
inevitable emergencies will be greater. Treat your staff
with disdain, and … you can figure out the rest.
10. Confront Your Mistakes and Accept Constructive
While nobody wants to make a mistake, it is going
to happen. None of us is perfect. When something has
gone wrong, whether the error is big or small, deal
with it immediately! Do not bury the problem and hope
that it will go away. It won’t. If you confront
the mistake immediately, there may still be a way to
fix or at least minimize the problem. By trying to hide
from it, you can rest assured that when you are ultimately
required to confront the issue (and you will be) the
problem will be much greater. Your delay may even prejudice
your insurance coverage in some situations.
One of the inevitable consequences of making an error
is that you will receive criticism, hopefully of the
constructive variety. Listen to what you are being told,
and learn what is expected of you so you can avoid making
the same mistake again. As long as your error was not
the result of laziness or total carelessness, don’t
be embarrassed or focus on it endlessly. Your superiors
made plenty of mistakes too, perhaps the same ones you
have made. Above all else, don’t argue or get
defensive – accept the fact that you made a mistake,
fix it (if you can) and move on.
11. Keep Learning
Whatever you practice area, the law is complex and
constantly developing. Make sure that you take the time
to read the legal literature available to you, which
should always include weekly and monthly newspapers
and magazines, and seminar materials relevant to your
area of practice. It is your obligation to keep up to
date on changes in the law, and you will be very happy
to avoid uncomfortable situations that can arise from
not doing so.
This article originally appeared
in the Ontario Bar Association's (www.oba.org)
November 2004 Young Lawyers' Division Newsletter.
David J. Levy is a partner at Howie,
Sacks & Henry LLP in Toronto. His practice is devoted
to personal injury, medical malpractice and insurance
litigation on behalf of seriously injured accident victims.
He can be reached at DavidLevy@hshlawyers.com.